Thursday, March 22, 2007

spotlight: colum mccann

Colum McCann, born in 1965 in Dublin & owner of a degree from the University of Texas, has recently published Zoli (Random House, 2007), whose eponymous hero we meet in the 1930s after most of her family is murdered by Czechoslovakian fascists. Zoli's surviving grandfather teaches her to read & write, an extremely rare skill among Gypsies, who consider it a gadje (outsider) practice. The girl becomes a poet when she grows up; however, her own culture clashes greatly with her unasked-for role as poster child for socialism, & she is banished from her kumpanija (group of caravans).

McCann is the author of half a dozen works of fiction, including the masterful This Side of Brightness (1998), Everything in This Country Must (2001), & Fishing the Sloe-Black River (Picador, reprint edition 2004). He frequently makes use of actual people & events as the genesis for his fiction: in This Side of Brightness, three sandhogs working in subway construction are shot "like a spat cherry stone" out of a pressurized tunnel deep beneath the East River, through the riverbed & into the air on a geyser of water. As improbable as this sounds, it's a precise echo of what happened one day in Manahattan in 1916.

In an interview today with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW's "Bookworm," McCann recalled how the character of Zoli came to him. His wife was reading Bury Me Standing, Isabel Fonseca's 1996 account of modern-day Roma in Eastern Europe, & in the front of the book was a photo of Papusza, the exiled Gypsy poet. After Dancer, his fictionalized account of the life of Rudolf Nureyev, McCann was hoping to write a novel that was light on research. But the woman in the photograph grabbed McCann "& wouldn't let go." Papusza, a Polish Gypsy named Bronislawa Wajs, was beaten as a child whenever she was discovered reading, yet she persisted. Like the character Swann in Zoli, a gadjo poet named Jerzy Ficowski "discovered" the adult Papusza & convinced her to write down her songs so that they could be shared with the mainstream culture; the Polish government also used her as part of their effort to settle the Romani in housing estates. Naturally, Papusza & the fictional Zoli were viewed as traitors by their own people.

"I think it's a book about the human heart in conflict with power and power structures," said McCann, adding that the Polish regime would drop leaflets from airplanes urging citizens of Gypsy origins to join them--that is, to give up their nomadic way of life--and that it ordered that the wooden wheels of the beautiful caravans be sawed off as part of the resettlement campaign. Zoli's kumpanija no longer spoke her name after her exile; ironically, she then wandered about the countryside, somehow managing to survive extreme depredation with only occasional help from kind strangers.

An excerpt from "Tears of Blood," written by Papusza about the suffering of Gypsies under the Germans in 1943-1944:

When big winter comes,
what will the Gypsy woman with a small child do?
Where will she find clothing?
Everything is turning to rags.
One wants to die.
No one knows, only the sky,
only the river hears our lament.
Whose eyes saw us as enemies?
Whose mouth cursed us?
Do not hear them, God.
Hear us!
A cold night came,
the old Gypsy woman sang
a Gypsy fairy tale:
Golden winter will come,
snow, like little stars,
will cover the earth, the hands.
The black eyes will freeze,
the hearts will die.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

dorland's lad

Friday, March 09, 2007

"and our faces, my heart, brief as photos"

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

no retreat from violence

Books & bombs should never be mixed, yet here is today's sad news from Iraq (excerpt courtesy of the New York Times).

Suicide Bombing Kills 20 in Baghdad Book Market

BAGHDAD, March 5 — The book market along Mutanabi Street was a throwback to the Baghdad of old, the days of students browsing for texts, turbaned clerics hunting down religious tomes and cafe intellectuals debating politics over backgammon.

Somehow it survived the war, until Monday, when a powerful suicide car bomb hit the market, slicing through the heart of the capital’s intellectual scene. It killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 65.

In the hours after the noontime explosion, books and stationery, some tied in charred bundles, littered the block. Plumes of black smoke billowed above ornate buildings dating to the Ottoman Empire. The storied Shahbandar cafe, where elderly writers puffed away the afternoon on water pipes, lay in ruins.

Firefighters unleashed powerful sprays of water, only to have flames reignite because the paper had been transformed into kindling.

This part of Baghdad dates back centuries, to the era when the Abbasid caliphate ruled over the Islamic world. On Monday, victims lacerated by shrapnel were carried over shards of glass to waiting ambulances.

“There are no Americans or Iraqi politicians here — there are only Iraqi intellectuals who represent themselves and their homeland, plus stationery and book dealers,” said Abdul Baqi Faidhullah, 61, a poet who frequently visits the street. “Those who did this are like savage machines intent on harvesting souls and killing all bright minds.”

The bombing was the latest of a half-dozen major blasts aimed at civilians in the capital in the three weeks since the Iraqi government and American military announced the start of a new Baghdad security drive. The number of gunshot killings attributed to sectarian death squads appears to have dropped as militia leaders have ordered their followers to lie low. But deadly bombings have continued with ferocity.

None of those bombings have had the symbolic resonance of the one on Mutanabi Street, the embodiment of Baghdad’s venerable intellectual history. Avid readers could find novels by the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz and Newsweek magazines from the 1960s. Merchants often spread their wares out on the sidewalk, down the block from a building used for administration by Ottoman-era officials and, after World War I, British colonial officers.

Religious texts, particularly on Shiite ideology, began to appear after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, who had banned them from markets across Baghdad. The conversations at the Shahbandar cafe blossomed into free expressions of political opinion. The cafe became popular with foreign reporters seeking comments from Iraqi intellectuals on the changes roiling Iraqi society.

But commerce along Mutanabi Street began to decline last summer after the Iraqi government imposed a citywide curfew every Friday for security reasons, making it tough to get to Mutanabi on its traditional market day.

The bombing on Monday shattered hopes for a rebirth. An Iraqi colonel on the scene said the suicide car bomb, which was loaded with gas cylinders, had left a crater more than 9 feet deep in the middle of the street. At least 20 cars were set ablaze.

“Those terrorists do not represent Islam,” said Wissam Arif, 45, an engineer and eager browser of the book market. “They are fighting science. They hate the light of science and scientists. Haven’t they killed hundreds of prophets and intellectuals?

“Yesterday they killed the prophets and today they are killing the books. But hopefully the just, the science and the light will win. We’ll be patient until we achieve victory.”

There are fewer and fewer public spaces where one can retreat from the violence of Baghdad. An animal market nearby has been bombed three times. Parks where couples once embraced are now empty of life because people are afraid to leave their homes. Some renowned restaurants have shut down and reopened in Amman, Jordan, a city brimming with Iraqi refugees.

Ahmad Fadam contributed reporting from Baghdad, and employees of The New York Times from Kirkuk and Baquba.